Episode #35: Up, Up, and Away, with a TWA Hotel Immersive Experience

Grad Conn

December 15, 202014 min read

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Our story today begins with an airport fiasco, and ends with (part 1) of an immersive experience at the new TWA Hotel at JFK. It’s all about the importance of empowering your employees to delight your customers, and paying attention to those little details that add up to an amazing customer experience. Make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full, upright position. Today is all about airline and airport experiences.

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Welcome to the CXM Experience. I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And today I’m going to talk about a hotel. And you know, this is actually one of my favorite stories. I was following it for a really, really long time. And I’m going to talk today about the TWA hotel at JFK, JFK Airport, just outside New York on Long Island. You may or may not be familiar with the story of TWA. And you may or may not be familiar with the story of Eero Saarinen, so I’ll maybe fill you in a little bit on those two people. And I’ll talk a little bit about the terminal. But before I do that, I can tell you about how I discovered it.

So I have been following the news for a while that the old TWA terminal which had been decommissioned and unoccupied since 2001, was being revived, which is pretty cool. And not just being revived as a terminal, but being revived as a hotel, and a hotel connected to JFK. So that’s kind of neat. And as I read more about it, what I realized they were doing is they were reviving it in its exact, original glory, bringing it right back to the way it looked in 1962 when it first opened. It just sounded crazy and amazing all at the same time. And I kept tucking it away. I’m a big, mid-century modern fan. And so it was right down my alley in terms of the MCM look, and I just thought that will be a great place to go visit one day. But you know, didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about it.

One day, I am running to the airport to catch a flight. And it was a flight to Paris and I was running a little late for a couple reasons. And I never miss flights. And I got to the Delta desk and I had to check some luggage because I had a fair amount of luggage, and couldn’t get it on the plane. So get this, you have to be there 45 minutes before the flight. I know that. I got there 44 minutes before the flight. And that particular day it was very quiet. I could see my boarding gate, actually I was in the older terminal. And there’s no way I wouldn’t have been able to get on the airplane. But because of the way the rules are set up at Delta, the gate agents don’t have any discretion to be able to do anything about it.

And so the gate agent knew I could get on. I’m a Delta 360, you know, double platinum, whatever the top level is. I’ve got all this so called secret access. And she couldn’t override these systems. And boy, it was a really great example of experience gone wrong. Where, for good reasons, they had wanted to make sure that luggage was loaded early enough that they could be inspected, etc. Check. But by putting a hard stop in it, they had taken control and power away from the gate agent and made it impossible for them to have any discretion about letting someone on the flight. And what it did. It created a pretty uncomfortable situation for the gate agent and for myself.

And it was reminiscent of another similar situation where I had been in Memphis and I had to fly back to see a play that my daughter was in. And the play was one night only. So I had to get back. And so I got to the airport and United had canceled the flight from Memphis to Chicago. Just cancelled it. And it’s just it’s gone. Like didn’t try to help put us on another flight or anything. There’s just no, there’s no more planes. Sorry. And so I rushed over to Delta. And again, I was one minute past the cutoff. And in that particular case is even worse, because I could actually see the open door of the plane. Like it was right there. And I didn’t have any luggage… I’d flown down for the day. I just needed to walk onto the airplane. And they literally couldn’t sell me a ticket. And I called and did everything. And again, these automatic systems couldn’t allow any manual override. And it was frustrating for the gate agents, frustrating for me. Yeah. And then in that case, Delta lost. I was willing to pay any amount of money and Delta lost the money. Now I led to an amazing experience on Amtrak. So it all worked out for the best and I’ll talk about that some other time. But these, these things where you don’t give your people the trust to… and if you don’t empower them to be discretionary, it makes it very hard for them to land a great experience.

So, I have a contrasting example, which is one of my best flight experiences ever. For an airline I fly very rarely actually, because I just don’t go to England very often. But I was on a trip… this is a few years ago, on a trip to London, and I had to fly back. And I was flying back on British Airways, just coach, nothing fancy. And I had been in a bit of a long trip, and I was probably a little tired. And it had been a good trip, I was working at Grey and did some great work. But I was a little down probably. It was a little, you know, when you’re traveling and get a little bit tired and a little sad. And so I got to the airport, and I went to the check in agent, and she looked at my information and she was checking me in. And she said, Hey, today’s your birthday. I’m like yeah, She looked at me a slightly sort of apologetic and sad look on her face like, you’re flying… in this case, I’m flying from London to Miami, which is like a nine hour flight. You’re flying on your birthday. And I’m like, yeah. She said you couldn’t fly any other time? So no, this is it. I mean, I just I gotta go. I’m doing a speech. I hit Miami. I rent a car drive across Florida. And then I’m doing a speech in Tampa. I guess it’s not. It’s not a great situation, but that’s the way it is.

And she said, okay, and she went back to checking me in. And then she looked up at me and she said, today’s your 40th birthday? I say Yep. Yep. She said you’re flying on your 40th? And then at this point is starting to feel like alright, slow down Kansas, like, take it easy. All right, I get it. You don’t need to keep rubbing it in, but okay. Yep. And then she reaches across, with the ticket and she goes, happy birthday. And it was just a slightly different sort of tonality to it. I’m like, thank you. And I looked at the ticket, and she had upgraded me to first class. And it was a 747. So I was on the second floor of a British Airways 747 for my birthday. And it was actually the first time I had flown first class. And that was my first first class experience. It was pretty amazing. And when that flight arrived in Miami, I literally was just hoping they needed to turn around and go right back again, because I was… I’d be happy to stay in that plane for as many days as they wanted me to. And that’s a good example of where British Airways had obviously provided the discretion to these agents. So they could serve a customer and create a moment of great delight.

But not Delta. I’m a huge Delta fan, massive Delta fan. Like I said, I’m a 360, I’ve been flying all the time, they’ve done a lot of things that are really cool. But this is an example of where they’ve got to think about what they’re doing here. Because, you know, it was hugely disruptive.

Anyway. So the ticket agent is desperate to help me. Can’t. Escalates, like crazy. She’s going to managers, etc. No, no, no, no, no way. And, of course, time is ticking on. And then we went from like I could have made it to it was getting kind of tight. So I’m actually a little tired, though. I remember being in the middle of a pretty significant number of travel legs. And so I was just sort of sad, but rolling with it. And also thinking what am I going to do now. And so she rebooked me on a flight in the morning. And I was like, I gotta go back in to New York City. And then I’m going to come back out again by the time I get back. And she said, may I make a suggestion. I said, Sure. And she said, there’s a new hotel that is just opened. It’s called the TWA Hotel. And I said I heard of that. Then she was it’s open. I said, Really? I didn’t know. It was actually pre open, not officially opened yet. But they were they’re taking customers. And she said, you know, if you’re interested, I could get you a room there. And I said, Yeah. And so she went online on her computer, went to the TWA Hotel site, TWAHotel.com, and found a selection of rooms. I said, I’ll take that one. And she picked it and then she let me complete it. I put my credit card in and got the room. And she said it’s over in Terminal five. You just go to the JetBlue terminal… and we’re in Terminal four, the newer Delta terminal. You just get the AirTrain and you’re over in the new terminal and off you go. And I was like, Oh, that’s kind of cool. I said, Thank you.

It was a really frustrating experience in some ways, but I’m really glad I don’t have to crawl all the way back to the city because it probably would have been like literally a two, two and a half hour drive back in the city. Brutal traffic that day. And then back out again, first thing in the morning. This is great. And I’m going to have a fun night. And thank you very much. She said, Well, you’re welcome.

And then she said the weirdest thing to me, I’ll never forget it. As long as I live. It was like one of those moments of human compassion, where you really understand just how rough someone’s job must be. And, and she said… Actually, I gave her… I get these coupons. I don’t know if everyone gets some or not. But I get these coupons that allow me to reward people like crew and other Delta employees, whenever they do something really cool. I can give them this certificate that I think it’s miles, but a certificate that says thanks for doing a great job. And here’s your award. And I think what’s really great about it is that they probably count how many they get. And that’s a great way to show management you’re doing a good job. And so I gave her one of these as a way of saying thank you.

And then she said the two things she said to me were just like, my heart broke. First thing she said. is she looked at this certificate I gave her and she looked up at me. And she had like, not tears but like that, you know, that pre tear stage when your eyes get moist. She looks up at me, and she’s like, I’ve never gotten one of these before. Wow. Can you imagine work… and she’d been doing it for a while. Imagine working at a job knowing other people in the team are getting these things. And she’s a very nice person. So she’s probably been providing great service for a long time. I’ve never gotten one of these before. Because people are in a rush. This is like an obstacle they have to get over as opposed to something they provide great service. And so that is bad.

And then she looked at me in this really compelling way and said, I want to thank you for not yelling at me. I want to thank you for not yelling at me. And I’m not like a yeller anyway. But can you imagine being in a job where the exception is that people don’t yell at you. And I guess the situation was pretty ridiculous. You know, and I can imagine that there’s… I guess there’s an opportunity to get angry and get start yelling. Yeah, I don’t think that’d be very effective. But that’s always I guess, people, some people go that way. And I just thought it was amazing that she thanked me for not yelling at her.

So anyway. So I walk away from that and I’ve got my giant suitcase, I’m dragging behind me. And I walk to the AirTrain, and then I get off in Terminal five. There’s a sign that says TWA Hotel. And so following the signs and it’s like this little magic ride because it’s all branded. And I go through the JetBlue terminal, and I get to an elevator and I press the elevator button and the elevator door opens and I walk in the elevator. The elevator door closes and I look at the elevator panel and where you press buttons to go places. There are two buttons one says modern day JetBlue the other one says 1960s TWA terminal. This is gonna be cool. Like you can tell instantly that something’s gonna be different because of the care that they’ve put into the elevator. And what’s cool is the outside the elevators, like all jet Bluey and then the inside of the elevators, all TWA. So I’ve already sort of stepped into a new world.

It’s a little bit like the Walt Disney Family Museum. There’s an elevator that goes from one floor to the other. And it forms the transition between Walt’s early life and when he took the train to Los Angeles, from Kansas City. And when you’re in the elevator, it actually looks like the inside of a train, and it makes train noises. And when you get out of the elevator, you’re in Hollywood. So it forms this transition moment. Brilliant piece of museum design.

But anyway, so I get out of this TWA elevator. And to my right is Howard Hughes desk. And we’ll talk about the history of TWA. But you know, Howard Hughes is a big part of it. And I’m on this red carpet, and I’m looking down this mod tunnel that’s straight out of the 1960s and Frank Sinatra was playing on the speakers. And I realized wow, I’m about to enter something very different in a very different kind of experience.

So that’s all we’re going to talk about today. Because it was so much fun, I’m going to take you through the rest of it in the next couple of days, because it’s probably gonna take a little while to get through this. But key learnings from today is that, get those little details… this is what Disney always gets really correct… the little details. They signal to people that the experience is going to be different, and it prompts them to be ready for an experience.

So the more that you signal to someone that something’s about to be different from what they normally see, the more they’ll be ready to accept it. And they’ll be ready to receive it and be able to react to it and enjoy it. So for today’s episode of the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn and I will see you next time.

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